Pacific Discovery is an educational organization and a labor of love.

Since its inception in 2001, Pacific Discovery has taken more than 2,000 students and many faculty-led groups on our experiential journeys. We value our incredible team of experienced, qualified and passionate Program Instructors. We have an excellent safety record, comprehensive safety management systems and a database of alumni, parents, advisers and faculty, who are happy to be contacted by you, to discuss their experience.

Pacific Discovery has undergone independent safety accreditations with Gap Year Association (USA), Year Out Group (UK), and OutdoorsMark (NZ).

Our summer, semester and gap year programs are grounded in the philosophy of experiential education, where learning is facilitated and hands-on. Our programs are overland journeys, blending cultural immersion, personal and leadership development, volunteer and community service projects, experiential education, wilderness exploration and optional transferable academic credit. Our Mission is to offer the world’s best experiential programs - providing insights into our increasingly global society, developing empathy for other cultures, furthering understanding of international issues, heightening appreciation for the earth’s wild places, and assisting you to stretch and grow.

Our story

Kiwi’s Rachel Sanson and Scott Burnett, founded Pacific Discovery in 2001, utilizing experience gained through working in environmental and outdoor education, teaching, tourism, grass-roots community development and extensive travels. From the start the focus was offering deeply meaningful programs where students would gain new insights and ways of thinking about our world, through educational journeys. These journeys were ethically sound, ensured a positive outcome for host communities, and a lower impact on the environment. Initially based in Oregon, they relocated Pacific Discovery's home to New Zealand in 2005 to raise family.

In 2018 the reins were handed to another kiwi, Zach Johnston. Alongside continued input from Rachel and Scott, Zach’s varied educational and leadership experience made him the perfect person to continue the focus on authentic and inspiring international travel. As a Senior Instructor in Leadership Development, General Manager in the Tourism Industry, Field Based Outdoor Educator, International Expedition Leader, and Operational Ambulance Officer with extensive travel experience around the world, his input into program development and commitment to consistency of service is apparent.

Today, Pacific Discovery runs 25+ programs annually. We continue to be a small and personal organization that strives to offer authentic, inspiring and pivotal experiences.

As an organisation, we remain passionately and personally involved in all aspects of the program, from answering phone and email enquiries, to researching, developing and evaluating programs. We even manage to get out and lead programs from time to time. This means you have a very personalized experience and can trust that we are always focused on providing you with an inspiring and safe journey with Pacific Discovery.

What sets Pacific Discovery apart?

    • Goals - The focus of our programs is assisting students to become more confident, capable and self-reliant, empathetic, environmentally aware, and develop a global perspective. We endeavor to do this without telling students what to think or do. Instead by taking students out of familiar surrounds, putting them in challenging situations and exposing them to different ideas about the world, and through the hands-on nature of the program, and the shared perspective of the entire group, students will be supported to grow and develop along their own unique path.
    • Passion - Our HQ of Pacific Discovery are intimately involved in the day-to-day operations. We believe that our enthusiasm for what we do results in a more powerful, professional and personalized program experience for each student.
    • Integrity - We have personally researched, and work directly with, every accommodation, activity and transport provider, as well as every community and service project our groups undertake. These personal relationships result in surety of the program experience for our students and a better outcome, as local providers value the ongoing relationship they have with us and we reduce the barriers to communication and feedback.
    • Personalized - We work with each student and family to ensure students gain as much as they can from their program experience.
    • Program Design - Our programs are meticulously researched, designed and each program departure is a very special and unique experience. Learn more about Program Design.
    • A Journey - Each of our programs is a deliberate journey of discovery and the various program experiences link and flow together incredibly well.
    • Duration - Our semester programs are 10 weeks duration - two weeks shorter than a standard 12 week academic semester. Our reasoning for this is that we fit a lot into our programs and meet our programming objectives in 10 weeks. We feel that a longer duration is not necessary and does not meaningfully alter the depth of experience or learning gained from our programs. An additional benefit is that students have time to do their own independent experience or travel at the end of the program, building on skills they have developed during the program.
    • Structure - Some organizations advertise a sample itinerary and then have their Program Instructors make the arrangements just before, or even during the program. We expect our Program Instructors to focus on the students’ educational journey during the program and not be distracted by logistics. We make the majority of program arrangements and payments ahead of time so that the group are able to complete the scheduled itinerary and so that the instructors can focus their attention upon their group.
    • Safety - We have an exemplary safety record, and student welfare is our core focus. We have personally visited, assessed and maintain an ongoing relationship with every service project, activity, accommodation and transport provider that we use. Our Program Instructors are trained in safety assessment and management. We also teach and empower our students to assess and manage risk, so they take on some personal responsibility for decisions around their safety during the program. Learn more about our Safety and Risk Management protocols.
    • Accreditation - Pacific Discovery holds Gap Year Association (GYA) accreditation. This is a rigorous and comprehensive accreditation of all aspects of an organizations operation from safety management, to programming, to assessing the validity and worth of service learning projects. Read more about our Accreditation.
    • Program Instructors - We employ experienced professional Program Instructors who have great people skills, extensive in-country experience and wilderness first responder (WFR) first aid qualifications. Their role is 50% leadership, logistics, and managing healthy group dynamics, and 50% teasing learning out of experiences and individually mentoring each student They are vested in ensuring the best possible program experience for each student. Meet our team.
    • Students - We treat our students as adults and encourage personal responsibility. We have high expectations of our students and provide them with the knowledge and the skills to gain as much as possible from the program and to safely pursue their personal goals within the larger structure of the program.
    • Breaking Down Barriers - We reduce the hierarchy so that communication between students and instructors is open, trusting and easy. Our Program Instructors do everything that the students do, not keeping themselves separate from the group. Instructors form a big brother/sister relationship with students. This results in better mentoring of each student, better group dynamics, and more openness, trust, and communication within the group.
    • Supportive Group Dynamics - Students are often surprised at how closely bonded they become with their group mates, how supported they feel, and how powerful this aspect of our programs is. This doesn’t happen magically and everyone on a program contributes to creating great group dynamics and facilitating this is a key focus for our Program Instructors.
    • Quality of Experience - We continually refine and improve our programs. At program conclusion we do a thorough evaluation of all program elements, incorporating suggestions from our students, families, program instructors and local colleagues into future programs.
    • Affordability - Our focus is on offering incredible programs, not on how much money we can make. Our programs are very good value. In a broad comparison to similar programs, we stay in better quality accommodation, charter private transport, include more activities, have greater depth to our programming, and pay our program instructors higher rates - all while keeping our program fees comparable with those of the majority of our competitors. We do this by having stream-lined and efficient systems, keeping administration overheads low, and spending a minimal amount on marketing.
    • Ethics - Our vision is for our programs and organizational practices to have a net positive impact on the world. For us, it's about providing a more rewarding and fulfilling travel experience; being culturally sensitive and minimizing negative impacts on the environment; getting involved with local people – ensuring that our visits benefit the community, and that the local people are involved in decisions that affect their lives. We believe it's important to help conserve the world’s wild places, to travel and live sustainability, and to pay it forward. Learn more about our Philosophy.
    • Values - New Zealanders value honesty, fairness, openness, and treading lightly on the earth (broad generalization). Being an organization founded by New Zealanders, these values permeate through to Pacific Discovery.
Pacific Discovery - Hawaii Program
Danny on a Jurassic World filming location

“I had an incredible experience! The amount that I grew as an individual is astounding. I learned how to be independent and shop for meals while keeping price and budget in mind. I would recommend this program to others because of how much I learned about myself. ” Through the many spiritual experiences that we shared as a group on this program, I was able to straighten out my values and figure out what aspects of life are actually important to me. All in all, I had the time of my life on this trip!” Read more Danny Fournier, 2021
Hawaii Semester Program

Why Pacific Discovery?

When Scott and Rachel created Pacific Discovery, they were two young New Zealanders living in the United States. They were very conscious of the vast ocean between our old and new homes.

Covering 1/3 of the earth’s surface and larger than the entire combined land areas, the Pacific Ocean was named the ‘peaceful ocean’ by Spanish explorer Magellan during a voyage of discovery and the first circumnavigation of our planet in 1521.

Polynesian seafarers had earlier undertaken some of humanity’s greatest journeys of discovery over the 2,500 years preceding Magellan, as they gradually explored and settled the Pacific Ocean, voyaging from Asia to South America, to New Zealand and to Hawaii.

Magellan's voyage was an important early step in an accelerating process of making us aware of ‘our world’, a process that today is of critical importance as we stretch the capacity of our planet to provide for us all.

The name Pacific Discovery celebrates these early journeys of discovery and celebrates the journeys of discovery that our students undertake on our programs, as they deepen their understanding of our world, their understanding of themselves, and understanding the perspectives of others.

Our students undertake a Pacific (peaceful) Discovery - treading lightly on our world, learning the perspectives of others, and in the process becoming a force for peace and humanity.

Our logo incorporates a blue circle representing the Pacific Ocean. Inside this is the silhouette of two of our students. They are looking out from a peak. We love their embrace of the view and an openness to the world in all its richness, beauty and fragility. This moment encapsulates what our programs are all about.

Cooking workshop in Thailand
Tanner on a cooking workshop in Thailand

“I had such a great experience growing and learning about myself. I got an in-depth view of what it’s like to live in Thailand and be apart of a new culture, especially during home stays and visiting rural villages. ” Not only did I get to travel for almost 3 months and see all the beautiful things that Thailand has to offer, I have also seen the hard truth of a developing country and was able to deepen my global perspective. I was challenged and pushed out of my comfort zone and I’m so grateful I got to experience everything I did.

I would say this program was life-changing and exciting. Not only did I grow as a person, I made life long friendships and learned how to deal with situations in group settings. I’ve learned how to be a leader and how to adapt in a new setting, as well as how to be a global citizen and accept new cultures and values. This was a life changing experience not many people will get to have in their lives, and I’m so happy I got to be a part of the lucky few.”
Read more Tanner Barnes, 2021
Thailand Semester Program

Mission Statement

Our Mission is to make the world a better place by providing extraordinary learning adventures that assist students in gaining the skills, confidence and insight to realize their potential in an increasingly global society; developing empathy for other cultures; furthering understanding of international issues; and heightening appreciation for the earth's wilderness and diversity.

The vision is for our programs and organizational practices to have a net positive impact on the world.

Our beliefs

Our planet is facing critical threats – unsustainable resource use, overpopulation and global warming.

We believe that the current global economic model is unsustainable and disadvantages large swathes of our world’s population.

We believe that as a planet, the concept of nation states is damaging. One country’s decisions effect every other country, yet this is rarely a consideration in policy and decision making. The world is too connected and too small for nation states to be the ultimate authority.

We believe that individuals can make a positive difference in the world. We believe that to change the world we have to start with ourselves and work outward from there.

We believe that the most effective way to affect positive change is through education and role-modelling. You cannot compel people to change their habits, be more considerate, more empathetic or more environmentally considerate. It is far more effective if people choose to do this themselves because they come to see and believe it is the right thing to do.

Education

Our focus is on teasing out learning that is embedded within hands-on experience. Facilitated experiences on our programs contribute to students building a broader understanding of themselves and the world.

We provide our students new lenses and paradigms to view the world through, assisting students to grow in the direction of clarity, purpose and hope.

We mentor our students to take an actively engaged and inquiry-based approach to their program experience. Through this, students gain self-knowledge, confidence and vocational direction.

We deal in ‘real’ experiences. These can be challenging at the time but with appropriate facilitation are ultimately beneficial and the catalyst for students growth.

Service learning

All of our programs have a service learning component. We really enjoy this aspect of our programs and we work hard to ensure that the well-structured volunteer projects we arrange benefit both our partners and students. Volunteer projects allow our students to really immerse themselves in a place and share an experience with local people, bridging the gap that often exists between visitor and host.

We do not include volunteer activities simply to make our students feel good about themselves. Instead, service projects are planned around the expressed needs of a range of community groups, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

A lot of our students approach the service components of our programs inwardly focused on what they are going to gain from the experience. We turn this thinking around, and have them approach the volunteering without expectation of getting anything back for their efforts and with a true selfless desire to give of themselves. As Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Service-learning is the interaction between doing something practical (such as planting trees) and gaining a greater knowledge of the 'why' (how it benefits an ecosystem or community, etc.). And what makes it beautiful is that it is an engagement on many levels. Sometimes what is most useful is just hearing someone else’s story, or it could be the physical work done. You won’t always see a tangible impact of your efforts, but the reward is offering yourself to something/someone and being offered a genuine connection, opportunity, and engagement in return.

We strive to shift student orientation from “let me help you” to “let me come alongside you and learn from you." This changes the way students view community, and the way the communities view themselves. The exchange serves to heal some of the stories we’ve learned about ourselves and others.”

Our definition of Sustainability

Human action impacts the world, whether it impacts the physical environment or impacts other living beings. Actions as simple as making a cup of coffee have effects that ripple outwards like a pebble thrown into a pond.

In recognizing that every action has impacts, our vision of sustainability is for our programs and business practices to have a net positive impact on the world. Our goal is for impacts from our programs and business practices to tip the scales towards the positive, so that the negative impacts that do occur are justified through a net overall benefit.

For us, sustainability means balancing the kinds of experiences we offer and the expectations of our students against the ability of our host communities to manage the social impacts of our visiting and the minimization of our impacts upon the environment, so that host communities benefit, environments are sustained and the ability for future travelers to enjoy the same experience is not compromised.

We’ve done a lot of soul searching about the sustainability of international travel. In a nut-shell, we believe that our programs can have a positive effect on the countries and communities we spend time in. We are an important source of income for many communities and provide valuable opportunity for meaningful cultural exchange. We utilize small scale local or family operated businesses for transport, activities and accommodation. We make our programs as low impact as possible, and facilitate as many learning opportunities as we can.

Pacific Discovery - Working Towards Sustainability

Overall Strategies

  • Training and induction of staff on our vision, sustainability policies and organization ethics.
  • Imparting sustainability concepts to students in a way that is constructive and inspiring.
  • Keeping as much of program spending in host communities as possible.
  • Advocating and teaching sustainability and ethical travel.
  • Maintaining assessment of environmental and social impact of our programs in the planning stage and evaluation through student, instructor and host feedback.

Encouraging Positive Impacts

  • Facilitation of genuine cultural exchange between students and host communities.
  • Working with program alumni to facilitate ongoing communication and assistance to communities visited.
  • Encouraging students to share their experiences after their return from a program.
  • Support, use and encouragement of businesses that actively support sustainability.
  • Use of locally owned businesses on our programs, because businesses that are locally owned are more likely to engage in sustainable practices as they are more easily held accountable by their community and money stays in the host community/country.
  • Raising awareness of the importance of sustainability among students throughout their experience with us.
  • Incorporating activities into our programs that highlight the interconnectedness of our world and the importance of students managing their impacts on the world.

Reducing Negative Impacts

  • Provision of our ‘code of ethical travel’ to students, to facilitate mutually positive experiences for students and host communities.
  • Providing constructive feedback to operators with unsustainable practices.
  • Encouraging students to eat local foods during programs, reducing wasteful transporting of foodstuffs long distances.
  • Encouraging students to conserve resources like electricity and water.
  • Banning the use of non-biodegradable soaps and lotions where they could pollute waterways.
  • Requiring our students to use water filter bottles to eliminate the need to buy bottled water.

Giving Back

  • Volunteer Projects – Students on our programs have collectively contributed in excess of 25,000 volunteer days to projects as diverse as building simple houses for solo mothers in marginalized rural communities in Cambodia to conservation work supporting the threatened New Zealand Dotterel.
  • Support of grassroots organizations within countries we operate in. We regularly donate funds and encourage our students to support a number of grass-roots organisations.

Office Sustainability

  • Reducing the use of paper by digitizing as much administration as possible, from online program payment to email receipts, email bookings and student files
  • Workplace practice of minimizing use of water, heater and lights
  • Recycling and avoiding single use plastics in the office
  • Reducing use of motor vehicle and encouragement of use of bicycles, ride sharing and public transport
  • We are lucky enough to be based in a country whose electricity generation is already 82% renewable! This makes New Zealand one of the lowest carbon dioxide emitting countries in terms of electricity generation.

Pacific Discovery Code of Travel Ethics

What is ‘Ethical Travel’?

It’s about providing and having a more rewarding and fulfilling travel experience; being culturally sensitive; minimizing negative impacts on the environment; getting involved with the local people to ensure that your visitor dollar benefits the community and that the local people are involved in decisions that affect their lives. It’s about helping to conserve the world’s wild places; sustainability; and creating as much as possible a mutual exchange.

We will help you ‘get beneath the skin’ of the countries you visit. You will meet the local people on their terms, learn about history and culture, and enjoy wilderness experiences that don’t damage the environment. By travelling ‘responsibly,’ you’ll be making a positive contribution to the host communities and environments you visit, ensuring that future travelers will enjoy the same privilege.

Ethical travel is key to our philosophy. We do our best to operate ethically (and welcome any feedback), but we need your help. Following are some suggestions on how to minimize your impact and to engage in away that brings shared understanding. By following these guidelines, we believe you’ll have a far richer  travel experience.

Before You Leave Home

The more you know about your destination before you leave, the more you will be able to appreciate and understand it once you’re there.

Try to read up on the history and culture. There is a recommended reading list provided in the student log-in section of the website.

Many developing countries don’t have very good waste collection services, so try to leave excess packaging at home and when you’re buying toiletries, we recommend bio-degradable products.

Consider the clothes you’re packing. Many countries have a modest dress code. See the packing list for recommended clothing. By dressing inappropriately you may be putting a barrier between yourself and the people you want to interact with. Loose clothing that covers limbs not only protects you from the sun and insects, but also will ensure you’re more readily accepted by local communities.

Similarly, leave expensive jewelry, sunglasses and clothing at home – not only can it attract unwanted attention, but it’s a tactless reminder of the differing standards of wealth between the ‘west’ and the developing world.

People, Customs & Etiquette

Travel in a spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to learn about the people of your host country.

Meeting and interacting meaningfully with the local people and experiencing foreign cultures are often the greatest highlights of your travels. Your program will provide many opportunities for both. However, respect, consideration and an open mind are needed for these interactions to be mutually enjoyable. Don’t be surprised if local people – especially in remote areas – treat you with an equal measure of curiosity.

Put yourself in their shoes. It’s easy to judge another culture by our own standards and assumptions, but it’s worth keeping in mind that you are a guest in their community – please respect your hosts and behave as you’d expect a guest to behave in your home/country.

Other cultures have a different concept of ‘time’ – you’ll find it a lot less stressful if you go with the flow. Keep an open mind and don’t be too quick to judge; we do things differently back home, not better, just differently.

Don’t be too quick to generalize. One experience with a local culture is never going to accurately reflect the whole culture.

Please be respectful of local customs. Read up before you go, and ask your program instructor, or a local, if you’re unsure. Observe, listen, and take your cue from the community.

Please respect private property and sites where access may be limited, by asking permission. Please also abide by the laws of the country and community you’re visiting.

Cultivate the habit of listening and observing, not just hearing and seeing.

Support local traders by buying locally made goods.

Begging

It’s often difficult to resist the pleadings of beggars, be it children calling for sweets or adults with terrible disabilities. We strongly recommend you do not give money or other ‘gifts’ (such as pens or candy) to beggars. Doing so can help create a begging fraternity that undermines traditional culture and social structures, and almost inevitably eliminates any chance for equitable interaction between locals and foreigners.

Gift Giving

Please do not give gifts indiscriminately. It is easy when travelling in the developing world, to be shocked by the seemingly primitive living conditions you encounter. Many travelers compare the locals’ resources with their own, and experience guilt or outrage at inequalities. In an attempt to relieve the guilt or inspire goodwill, many visitors distribute gifts of sweets, money and other items to local children and adults. However the lack of money, modern conveniences, or expensive playthings in developing countries does not necessarily indicate poverty. Most rural people have crops, animals and homes that provide sufficient food, clothing, and shelter. They work hard on the land and it, in turn, takes care of them. When the visitor hands out sweets or cigarettes, they contribute to dental and health problems that cannot be remedied locally; when they give money, they impose a culture of consumerism that might not ultimately be good for the community or the planet.

If you wish to be accepted by local people, you can perhaps share a conversation, teach a game from home, or share a photograph of your friends or family. If you wish to make a bigger difference, you can donate your time, money and supplies to organizations working to improve livelihoods.

Photography

Please ask before taking someone’s photo, and respect the persons wishes. Usually just lifting your camera with a questioning look will suffice as a request, although asking in the person’s own language is even better. A smile goes a long way.

We suggest that you don’t pay for taking photos of people – it becomes another form of begging, with similar consequences. Usually, if you take a little time to communicate with your subject, they will agree to be photographed – you end up with a more relaxed subject, and you each have a more enjoyable and memorable experience.

If you promise to send someone a photo, please follow though. We are more than happy to help out and can deliver prints next time we pass through.

Bargaining

Bargaining is a fundamental part of the shopping experience in many countries. What many visitors don’t realize is that it’s not about securing the lowest possible price. It’s about fair trade and reaching a tactical agreement that suits both parties. The social interaction is as much a part of the process as the financial outcome. Keep this in mind, and perhaps consider that low prices often mean low wages. Please don’t be mean-spirited, instead approach bargaining with a ready smile and a willingness to have an interaction. Does haggling over that last dollar really make a difference to you, compared to the vendor?

Religious & Historic Sites

Ensure that you are appropriately dressed and aware of particular actions that may cause offence.

Food

The countries we visit have a distinctive and exciting cuisine – local delicacies and shared meals with the local people are invariably the stuff of rich memories. We encourage you to support local restaurants by trying their food.

Trash

Disposing of waste properly in the developing world is more complicated than back home. Most of the countries we visit don’t have ‘organised’ waste disposal systems. In many places, almost all the waste generated was biodegradable or recyclable until the recent introduction of plastics and other consumables. The local infrastructure cannot cope with this change.

Please dispose of your own trash thoughtfully. Consider carrying a reusable cloth bag with you for purchases and carry a plastic bag with you for trash you generate during the day

Washing & Water Pollution

Protecting water resources is vital. In many places shower and hand basin water drains unfiltered into rivers. We urge you to use biodegradable soaps, shampoos, and conditioners that don’t contain phosphates.

Environment

Ecosystems throughout the world are under enormous pressure from the unsustainable harvesting of resources. Please do not contribute to this by buying any souvenirs that have been made with wild animals or their parts, insects, shells and coral or tropical hardwoods.

Wild foods are popular in many countries. Economic pressures force people to disregard the complexity of eco-systems and how depredation of certain species can cause irreparable damage to entire environments. Please make sure that you do not contribute to this by eating wild food items in restaurants e.g. wild deer or shark-fin soup.

Save precious natural resources and energy. Don’t waste water; switch off lights and AC if you go out.

What Else Can I Do?

Many of our students return with a new perspective on life and a desire to be pro-active in ‘giving something back’. Please ask us about the grass roots social and environmental initiatives we support.

Adopt these guidelines for your future travels.

If you have any suggestions for existing causes you think worthy of our support, or if you have feedback on how we can reduce our impacts, please let us know.

Pacific Discovery values diversity, equity, and social justice. We aim to create educational experiences that further these values in their accessibility and inclusivity, educational outcomes, and student support. We seek and encourage the involvement of people from traditionally underrepresented audiences in our programs, activities, and workplace.

To work towards this vision, we have the following policies

Student Recruitment

Pacific Discovery does not discriminate by race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, or ability and states this clearly on our program application

We are mindful about the marketing content and images on our website and other publications so to represent our diverse population

We have a scholarship program offering financial assistance to students in the following under-represented categories within international education

Diversity Scholarship: We are offering a diversity scholarship to support individuals who are from a racially or ethnically under-represented population in the USA, to participate in an overseas experiential education program. If you meet the following criteria then you can apply: person of color; your gross family income is below $80,000 per year

Needs based Scholarship: You can apply for this scholarship if your family earns less than $65,000 per year, or if you are a first-generation college student and your family earns less than $75,000 per year.

These scholarships are awarded in amounts between $1000-$5000 per person. A total of $10,000 is available under each scholarship annually.

Student Support

We offer staff training and ongoing professional development around issues of diversity, identity and inclusivity. This includes:

  • Staff identity exploration
  • Social justice education
  • Addressing discrimination and micro-aggressions during the program (within group and from community/hosts)
  • Our program curriculum incorporates social justice education with particular attention to:
    • Student identity exploration
    • Culture and power
    • Ethical travel
    • Learning service

Diversity Initiatives & Support

Pacific Discovery is a partner with Diversity Abroad

We are working to broaden our enrolment beyond the current 90% of students from the USA, to have more diverse representation from other countries on our programs.

Pacific Discovery is an educational organization registered and physically located in New Zealand.

We have undergone and maintain comprehensive safety and programming accreditations with

  • Gap Year Association (USA)
  • Year Out Group (UK)
  • Outdoors Mark (NZ)

We are members of

  • Forum On Education Abroad - advancing best practice in the education abroad field
  • NAFSA - the National Association for International Educators 
  • IEE - the Institute of International Education 
  • Generation Study Abroad – the US government initiative to increase the opportunities for US students to study abroad 
  • Gap Year Association 
  • The Year Out Group 
  • Everyday Ambassadors - A network of people and organizations committed to community centered international education and exchange

We maintain

  • An independently audited safety management system.
  • An independently audited sustainability policy.
  • Comprehensive public liability insurance.
  • Experienced and well-educated Program Instructors who hold relevant tertiary qualifications, Wilderness First Responder (WFR) first aid qualification, and are trained in our leadership, experiential education, facilitation, risk assessment and safety management systems.
  • A database of alumni who have travelled with us, and alumni families, and university and gap year advisors, who are happy to be contacted to discuss their (or their son or daughter's) experience with Pacific Discovery.
  • Program payments are held in a bank trust account till disbursement, meaning that in the event of financial default of Pacific Discovery, student program payments would be protected from creditors.

Did You Know?

  • Annually we run a number of customized programs for high school and university groups. Contact us if you are interested in an educational program for your students.
  • Our Directors speak at conferences and are on the ethics and standards committees for the Gap Year Association (GYA).
  • National Geographic nominated Pacific Discovery among the ‘top 100 travel companies on earth' in 2008 and again in 2009.
Catherine Hawkins
Catherine at school in Cambodia

“I have known Scott and Rachel for several years, and I can recommend them in the strongest positive terms. In my opinion, they run the most impressive student-oriented programs available anywhere. I have led numerous study abroad programs and worked with many other companies over the years, so I am most confident in this assessment.” I worked with Pacific Discovery extensively in the planning, development, and implementation of a Texas State School of Social Work study abroad program to Cambodia and Thailand in winter 2007-2008. This was a three-week in-country program involving fifteen students. I was immediately impressed with Pacific Discovery by their excellent, extensive website, and their quick and professional response to my initial inquiries. They were very attentive to the details of the trip as well as responding to my needs. They gained my full confidence very quickly. Our planning time was shorter than desirable, but they were able to make it all happen very efficiently and effectively. They handled every aspect of the program from start to finish without any problems of any kind, and I truly enjoyed their pleasant, friendly attitude.

Scott was our tour leader, and the students really loved him. I appreciated that he not only managed the logistics of the program so well, but also greatly enhanced the academic quality with his extensive knowledge of Southeast Asia, particularly the history and contemporary culture of Cambodia and Thailand. In addition, Pacific Discovery arranged for several very unique learning opportunities, such as staying with a wonderful family in a village, visiting local schools to interact with students and donate books, volunteering at non-governmental social service agencies, and touring an ecologically-based nature preserve.

I can say that Scott and Rachel changed our lives through this amazing adventure.”
Read more Catherine Hawkins, 2019
Professor of Social Work
Honorary Professor of International Studies
Texas State University-San Marcos

Risk management is the process of evaluating where things are most likely to go wrong, what the consequences of things going wrong could be, and what should be done before, during and afterwards to minimise the chance of an incident occurring.

When an incident occurs, a number of factors typically contribute to the incident. Our role in program planning and our instructors’ role in the field is to be constantly looking for and identifying these factors in advance and mitigating them before they can contribute to an incident occurring.

What is Pacific Discovery’s safety record?

With our 20 years of operation and more than 100,000 student days in the field, we have an excellent safety record. 

We have had our safety management systems assessed and accredited by the Gap Year Association, the Year Out Group(UK) and OutdoorsMark (New Zealand). Assessors have commented that our systems are among the best they have observed.

Why is our safety record so good?

Student involvement

All students are taken through a comprehensive orientation at program start. This covers how the program will run, cultural information, mutual support, personal safety and keeping healthy. We insist upon a few simple rules (program rules and behavorial guidelines) to protect students on the program. Throughout the program, students are then given region or activity specific briefings and safety information relevant to the experience they are embarking on.

Program Instructors work to create a culture within the group where students are happy to discuss their health and emotional well-being with their program instructors and each other.

When there is unstructured time on a program, we have an intentions system in place, so that the program instructors know what everyone’s plan is. Any time a student is away from the group, they are also required to be with another group member (buddy system), and to carry their program instructors’ mobile phone numbers.

We don’t try to wrap our students in cotton wool, hiding risks from them. Instead, we disclose the risks and give students the knowledge and tools to assess and make good decisions around risk and safety themselves. Program instructors can’t be with every single student 24/7, so we find that by giving students some responsibility for assessing risks and managing their own safety, students are more present, more engaged and more involved in their experience; and therefore more likely to make good decisions, look out for one another, and are less likely to come to harm.  Another benefit of this approach is that students complete our programs having acquired valuable life skills.

Our instructors will often sit down with their group ahead of an activity and discuss the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of the activity?
  • What could go wrong?
  • What factors could contribute to something going wrong?
  • How will we prevent this?
  • What will we do if things go wrong?

By working through these questions, we have a dozen minds actively involved in safety management and ready to respond appropriately, rather than the program instructors alone having this knowledge.

Leadership

Our program instructors hold Wilderness First Responder (WFR), first aid certification and have completed extensive in-house training. They know the appropriate leadership style to use in a given situation. They offer challenge by choice, teach by progression, and pitch challenges at the appropriate level for the group. Our instructors actively work at really getting to know each individual within the group to assist students in gaining the most from their experience.

We employ program instructors who have experience in the countries they are leading. Each new instructor co-leads with an experienced instructor so that one of them has intimate knowledge of the itinerary. Our pay rate is among the best we are aware of for gap year program instructors, and because of this we are able to attract and retain outstanding program instructors.

Our program instructors have 24/7 access to the advice of a medical doctor and psychiatrist for times the group are in a region without ready access to medical care.

Program planning

The directors of Pacific Discovery have developed and led each program themselves. We have personally met with, vetted and chosen almost every accommodation, transport and activity provider we use on our programs. This in itself does not ensure safety, but it does mean that we have a good idea of each provider’s capabilities, and by having direct relationships with these providers, we are able to pass on safety concerns and know they will be acted upon and taken seriously.

Our programs are well structured. 90% of each programs arrangements has been booked and paid for ahead of program start. This means that our program instructors are able to focus on their groups, on assessing risk, and on our experiential education goals, rather than being bogged down in logistical details.

We undertake a safety review after each program. Incidents are logged and instructor training implemented if necessary. Our procedures and the programs themselves are continually being refined.

Ratios

Our programs have two Pacific Discovery instructors accompanying the group for the duration of the program. Adventure activities and service projects are provided by specialist operators, with local guides, and include thorough safety briefings. We ensure that ratios of instructors to students for these activities comply with best-practice outdoor industry standards.  We have never had a serious injury related to the adventure activities or service work we do while on the programs.

Trustworthy local partnerships

An advantage of being a small organization is that we have a strong personal relationship with every local organization and operator we work with. This ensures we get the best possible experience by utilizing unique and local knowledge sources, as well as providing our groups with exceptional on-the-ground support.

Group make-up

By being accurate with the description of our programs, and by screening all applicants, we do our utmost to ensure that students understand the nature of the experience and are confident that the program will be a good fit. If we feel that a student does not meet our essential eligibility criteria then we will not accept their application. If during a program we find that a student does not meet the eligibility criteria they may be removed from the program.

Security

Pacific Discovery is registered for State Department notifications and security updates for all countries in which our groups travel. We register all of our US students with the State Department’s Smart Travel Enrollment Program. We closely monitor developments in countries in which we operate, and if we perceived an increase of risk in an area, we would not hesitate to re-route, or modify a program. In the event there is a safety or security issue we would liaise closely with families and keep them updated.

Rescue

Pacific Discovery has a global medical and security evacuation/rescue agreement in place with AIG Travel Guard that covers all group members, in the unlikely event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or coup, that warranted evacuation, AIG Travel Guard would extract the whole group from the region.

We have undergone and maintain comprehensive accreditations with

Gap Year Association (USA)
Year Out Group (UK)
OutdoorsMark (NZ)

We strive to set the bar for ‘best practice’ in the gap year and experiential education fields and ensure that all of our programs are held to the highest possible standards. This means that your son or daughter is assured to have a quality experience with us.

We also have the ability to award up to a full semester’s worth of US College credits for each of our programs. You can learn more about this here.

Gap Year Association (USA)

https://gapyearassociation.org

The Gap Year Association (GYA) is a 501(c)3 non-profit accreditation and standards setting organization for gap year program providers that is recognized as such by the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

Pacific Discovery was the second organization in the world to achieve GYA accreditation.  The accreditation requirements are very robust and examine all aspects of an organizations structure and systems. The accreditation standards comprise over 100 standards that organizations have to prove they meet – from safety management to health of staff, from liability insurance to ensuring service projects are meaningful and community-initiated. GYA hold the highest industry standards of accreditation of which only a handful of organizations have managed to meet.

Accreditation by the Gap Year Association is a means of assuring a quality experience for the participant. All Accredited Organizations must show a dedication to safety, quality, a baseline of structure and appropriate supervision, holistic growth, organizational integrity, and of course a pedagogy grounded in experiential education.

Year Out Group (UK)

https://www.yearoutgroup.org

Year Out Group is an association of leading gap year providing organisations, most of which are registered in the UK.  At least one of the principal activities of each of these organisations is the provision of well-structured programs in the UK or overseas, for young people taking time out between high school or college and higher education or employment. Such programs are educational in a broad sense and include,  courses, cultural exchanges, expeditions, and volunteer work.

All the organisations are subjected to a rigorous membership application process, which includes a visit to their headquarters by Year Out Group’s Chief Executive and a meeting with the Year Out Group’s Membership Committee.  All of the organisations listed on the YOG website are members of Year Out Group and have been through this process.  This means that they:

  • Support the aims of Year Out Group.
  • Agree to abide by the group’s Code of Practice and Member’s Charter.
  • Follow the Operating Guidelines for their respective sector.
  • Submit their annual accounts for inspection.
  • Have risk management policies and procedures in place that are in line with British Standard BS8848.
  • Have a crisis management policy and plan in place with trained staff
  • Have public liability insurance of at least £2million.

Outdoors Mark (NZ)

OutdoorsMark is the national outdoor safety audit program for the New Zealand outdoor industry. OutdoorsMark’s fundamental objective is to give participants on adventure activities assurance that the management of the activities has been checked by an independent expert – an OutdoorsMark auditor. If the operation is assessed by the auditor as being at or above the benchmark standards, they are granted OutdoorsMark certification.

The Department of Conservation (who administer all of New Zealand’s National Parks and conservation areas) require outdoor operators to hold OutdoorsMark accreditation in order to gain permits to take groups into these protected areas.

OutdoorsMark aims to:

  • Promote safe participation.
  • Provide assurance that national outdoor safety standards for safety and professionalism are being met.
  • Raise standards in the delivery of adventure activities.
  • Reduce the risk of injuries and accidents.
  • Establish procedures for continual review and re-validation.